2016-01-25

What Is Euhemerism?

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by Tim Widowfield

chromolithograph Caricature of Thomas Henry Hu...

Chromolithograph Caricature of Thomas Henry Huxley. Caption read “A great Med’cine-Man among the Inquiring Redskins”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[Note: This post reflects my perspective. Neil is not responsible for any of the following content. –Tim]

We have Thomas Huxley to thank for the word Darwinism, which he coined in 1860 in a review of On the Origin of Species. In modern times, of course, creationists have misused the term, applying it to any theory of natural evolution, and even to the study of abiogenesis. They continue to embrace the “ism” since bolsters their assertion that evolution is a kind of belief system, just as irrational as religion.

What is Darwinism? 

Simply stated, Darwinism is the theory of biological evolution by means of natural selection. Technically, the terms Darwinism and biological evolution are not entirely synonymous, since theories of evolution existed before Charles Darwin. I recall being taken aback when I first read that Charles’ grandfather Erasmus had written a poem suggesting all forms of life were interrelated and had evolved to their present state. And well before Charles published his book, Jean-Baptiste Larmarck had proposed a theory of evolution based on the idea that organisms acquire traits during their lives, and later pass them on (somehow) to their offspring.

Darwinism differs from other competing theories of evolution in its mechanism for change. It makes no sense, then, to apply the term to other theories that posit some process other than gradual modification through natural selection.

Nor is it technically correct to call today’s modern synthesis “Darwinism,” since it embraces two other important foundational concepts, namely mutation theory and Mendelian genetics. So those who would today call an evolutionary biologist a Darwinist betray their ignorance of evolution, Darwin, and biology in general.

A less familiar term, euhemerism, from time to time suffers similar misuse. How should we define this word? We might explain it, following Dr. Richard Carrier, as “doing what Euhemerus did.

But then we have to ask, “Well, what was that?”

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Crucifixion Portrayed Before the Very Eyes of Galatians

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by Neil Godfrey

Surely you have taken leave of your senses, you men of Galatia! Who has cast this spell over you, before whose very eyes Jesus Christ has been exposed to view as nailed on a cross? — Galatians 3:1, Cassirer’s translation.

Recent comments on Vridar prompted me to recheck what we know about this odd-sounding verse. Here I’ll quote the ancient sources that provide an explanatory context but I’ll also go one step further and (in debt to Thomas Brodie) look at a plausible inspiration for this expression and how it relates to the Gospel of Mark’s Passion Narrative. When we put this together and embrace the possibility of the Gospel’s debt to Paul’s letters then an interesting relationship between the two emerges over this very verse — of the Galatians apparently seeing Jesus Christ crucified before their very eyes.

But let’s begin with how Jesus was crucified “before their eyes”.

Hans Dieter Betz explains:

One of the goals of the ancient orator was to deliver his speech so vividly and impressively that his listeners imagined the matter to have happened right before their eyes. (Galatians, p. 131)

The evidence for this claim?

Aristotle

aristotle-rhetoricAristotle for one, Rhetoric, 3.11. I quote the passage at some length because Aristotle includes in his discussion a particular feature that we find in abundance throughout the Gospel of Mark — puns and other forms of wordplay .

It has already been mentioned that liveliness is got by using the proportional type of metaphor and being making (ie. making your hearers see things). We have still to explain what we mean by their ‘seeing things’, and what must be done to effect this. By ‘making them see things’ I mean using expressions that represent things as in a state of activity. Thus, to say that a good man is ‘four-square’ is certainly a metaphor; both the good man and the square are perfect; but the metaphor does not suggest activity. On the other hand, in the expression ‘with his vigour in full bloom’ there is a notion of activity; and so in ‘But you must roam as free as a sacred victim’; and in

“Thereas up sprang the Hellenes to their feet, “

where ‘up sprang’ gives us activity as well as metaphor, for it at once suggests swiftness. So with Homer’s common practice of giving metaphorical life to lifeless things: all such passages are distinguished by the effect of activity they convey. Thus,

“Downward anon to the valley rebounded the boulder remorseless; and “

“The (bitter) arrow flew; “

and

“Flying on eagerly; and “

Stuck in the earth, still panting to feed on the flesh of the heroes; and

“And the point of the spear in its fury drove

“full through his breastbone. “

In all these examples the things have the effect of being active because they are made into living beings; shameless behaviour and fury and so on are all forms of activity. And the poet has attached these ideas to the things by means of proportional metaphors: as the stone is to Sisyphus, so is the shameless man to his victim. In his famous similes, too, he treats inanimate things in the same way:

“Curving and crested with white, host following

“host without ceasing. “

Here he represents everything as moving and living; and activity is movement.

Metaphors must be drawn, as has been said already, from things that are related to the original thing, and yet not obviously so related-just as in philosophy also an acute mind will perceive resemblances even in things far apart. Thus Archytas said that an arbitrator and an altar were the same, since the injured fly to both for refuge. Or you might say that an anchor and an overhead hook were the same, since both are in a way the same, only the one secures things from below and the other from above. And to speak of states as ‘levelled’ is to identify two widely different things, the equality of a physical surface and the equality of political powers.

Liveliness is specially conveyed by metaphor, and by the further power of surprising the hearer; because the hearer expected something different, his acquisition of the new idea impresses him all the more. His mind seems to say, ‘Yes, to be sure; I never thought of that’. The liveliness of epigrammatic remarks is due to the meaning not being just what the words say: as in the saying of Stesichorus that ‘the cicalas will chirp to themselves on the ground’. Well-constructed riddles are attractive for the same reason; a new idea is conveyed, and there is metaphorical expression. So with the ‘novelties’ of Theodorus. In these the thought is startling, and, as Theodorus puts it, does not fit in with the ideas you already have. They are like the burlesque words that one finds in the comic writers. The effect is produced even by jokes depending upon changes of the letters of a word; this too is a surprise. You find this in verse as well as in prose. The word which comes is not what the hearer imagined: thus

“Onward he came, and his feet were shod with his-chilblains, “

where one imagined the word would be ‘sandals’. But the point should be clear the moment the words are uttered. . . .  This is also true of such lively remarks as the one to the effect that to the Athenians their empire (arche) of the sea was not the beginning (arche) of their troubles, since they gained by it. Or the opposite one of Isocrates, that their empire (arche) was the beginning (arche) of their troubles. Either way, the speaker says something unexpected, the soundness of which is thereupon recognized. There would be nothing clever in saying ’empire is empire’. Isocrates means more than that, and uses the word with a new meaning. So too with the former saying, which denies that arche in one sense was arche in another sense. . . .

. . . . The more a saying has these qualities, the livelier it appears: if, for instance, its wording is metaphorical, metaphorical in the right way, antithetical, and balanced, and at the same time it gives an idea of activity.

Successful similes also, as has been said above, are in a sense metaphors, since they always involve two relations like the proportional metaphor. . . .

Cicero

Maccari-Cicero

Then there is Cicero’s On the Orator (De Oratore), 3.40

Here almost every thing is expressed in words metaphorically adapted from something similar, that the description may be heightened. . . .

but, even in the greatest abundance of proper words, men are much more charmed with such as are uncommon, if they are used metaphorically with judgment. This happens, I imagine, either because it is some manifestation of wit to jump over such expressions as lie before you, and catch at others from a greater distance ; or be cause he who listens is led another way in thought, and yet does not wander from the subject, which is a very great pleasure ; or because a subject, and entire comparison, is dispatched in a single word ; or because every metaphor that is adopted with judgment, is directed immediately to our senses, and principally to the sense of sight, which is the keenest of them all. For such expressions as the odor of urbanity, the softness of humanity, the murmur of the sea, and sweetness of
language, are derived from the other senses ; but those which relate to the sight are much more striking, for they place almost in the eye of the mind such objects as we can not see and discern by the natural eyes.

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2016-01-24

Violent Islamism: Many are Called, Few are “Chosen”, Fewer Defect

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by Neil Godfrey

A new online article on the role of religious belief among Islamists supporting violence (an overlapping theme of these posts). The article by specialists in the field draws the some of the same comparisons I have been making between the appeal of religious cults and political extremist movements:

The Cult of Jihad: A Practical Theology Perspective on ISIS, a scholarly guest post by Joel Day and Scott Kleinmann in Political Violence @ a Glance (Expert Analysis on Violence and Its Alternatives).

Of particular interest to me is another article cited in “The Cult of Jihad”, and that is “The Study of New Religious Movements and the Radicalization of Home-Grown Terrorists: Opening a Dialogue” by Lorne L. Dawson in Terrorism and Political Violence, 22:1, 2009. From the abstract:

This article examines:

(1) the obvious reasons for, and curious absence of, a dialogue between scholars studying new religious movements (NRMs), particularly those responsible for acts of mass violence, and those studying processes of radicalization in home-grown terrorist groups;

(2) the substantial parallels between established understandings of who joins NRMs, how, and why and recent findings about who joins terrorist groups in a Western context, how, and why; and

(3) the ways in which explanations of the causes of violent behaviour in NRMs are pertinent to securing a more systematic and complete grasp of the process of radicalization in terrorist cells.

The latter discussion focuses on the role of apocalyptic belief systems and charis- matic forms of authority, highlighting the behavioural consequences of this danger- ous combination and their possible strategic significance. . . . 

Another new article of related interest is What Does It Mean If An Attack Is ‘ISIS-Inspired’?

H/T http://intelwire.egoplex.com/ (J. M. Berger, co-author of ISIS: the State of Terror)

We have seen the process by which some people are attracted to extremist groups and have reached the point of examining how a subset of those individuals are drawn to cross the line from intellectual sympathy to committing themselves to the high risks of active support for violence. (The argument that we have been presenting is from Quintan Wiktorowicz’s Radical Islam Rising. Wiktorowicz takes the now-banned jihadist group in Great Britain, al-Muhajiroun, as a case-study.)

To recap:

  • Many people at some time face a crisis that leads them to question their life-long assumptions and beliefs and opens them to a willingness to seriously consider radically new world-view perspectives. Crises can vary from death in a family to a feeling of not belonging in one’s “homeland”, a result of the combination of experiencing racial discrimination and alienation from the foreign culture of one’s migrant parents.
  • Seekers are more likely to respond to groups with the following factors:
    • the trained representatives of the group are able to discuss questions of interest to the seekers (not only political questions; literature of the group covers a wide range of topics);
    • the extremist group conveys a sense of credibility and spiritual authority by means of
      • the charismatic personality of the leader
      • its ability to convey a depth and breadth of knowledge and understanding of questions of interest to the seeker and of the alternative answers (Wiktorowicz’s notes that the more devout Muslims have a deeper knowledge of how their religion relates to such questions and are not attracted to the simplistic idiosyncratic interpretations of the extremists; those who are most often attracted have had very little prior religious interest.)
      • the rationality of its arguments
      • the tactic of giving the seeker a sense of being in control of his journey towards the extremist’s point of view (e.g. the seeker will be encouraged to investigate rival groups)
    • the extremist group hides its extremist views through front organisations and strategically planned discussions/messages

The relative few who are led to intellectual agreement with extremist views through this process are still a long way from turning their backs on society to the extent that they are potential suicidal mass murderers.

That’s where “culturing” enters the picture.

Through regular classes “seekers” are socialized into the movements ideology. We have seen how these classes and related activities increasingly consume so much of the individual’s time that there is little room left for serious arms-length reflection on the direction into which the path is leading. And it certainly helps when the seeker has had little or no serious religious engagement prior to encountering the new movement and against which they would otherwise be more capable of assessing the new teachings.

The Islamist extremist (and the member of other religious cults as well) sees him or herself as belonging to a pioneering vanguard of a new way of life that with the authority of Heaven is destined to replace all “human systems”. In the case of the Islamist (the term refers to one who believes in politically imposing Islamic law over society) that new way of life or ideology is destined to replace Capitalism and Democracy (the two go together in Islamist thinking). Democracy is interpreted as an anti-godly effort to replace God as the law-giver and ruler of society.

The mind-set that is inculcated as part of the “culturing” into the extremist movement’s revolves around its own sectarian interpretation of tawhid, or the “oneness of God”. Since God is the only lawgiver then anyone who supports democracy or even follows the wisdom of mainstream imams is said to be worshiping authorities other than God. We saw how some of this works out in detail in the previous post. — Recall that Islamic regimes in the Middle East are judged to be apostate because they countenance some form of democracy and enforce laws that are inconsistent with pure Sharia.

Other Muslims, moreover, argue that judging others as apostate is akin to murdering them since without the utmost stringent proofs only God can know the mind of another.

We look now at the ideology into which Islamist extremists are “cultured”. The ideology into which they are ever more deeply immersed through regular meetings, classes and activities, Wiktorowicz argues, is what leads them ever closer to the point of believing that their own personal salvation depends on a willingness to lose everything in this life and even to make others pay with their own lives, too.

We begin by looking at the source of the extremist’s ideology. The Quran is not enough for their ideological needs.

Preparations for an Islamic State

The Islamists look to the life of Muhammad (not found in the Quran) for guidance in or rationalisation of their program. There is a difficulty, not insurmountable, however. The Prophet’s life spanned many years through different environments — exile and conquest, for example. Islamist leaders therefore select what they believe to be the period in Mohammed’s life that is analogous to today’s situation for the radicals and make a judgement on how to apply the analogous act today. read more »


2016-01-19

Does growing “dewy-eyed at the mere mention of Paradise” lead to suicidal terrorism?

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by Neil Godfrey

What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry?Sam Harris, End of Faith, p. 129

Quintan Wiktorowicz

Quintan Wiktorowicz

Dr. Quintan Wiktorowicz takes a more nuanced view of what it takes to tip a person into a commitment to extremism. Wiktorowicz’s explanation might be worth noting as a counterbalance to Sam Harris’s fears since he is

  • one of America’s leading academics on the Muslim World,
  • an internationally recognized author and expert on national security engagement and counter-terrorism,
  • a developer of ground breaking counter-radicalization initiatives for the Intelligence Community and the Department of State,
  • a holder of two senior positions at the White House as driver of efforts to advance national security partnerships and innovation at home and abroad.

This post follows on from two earlier ones addressing Wiktorowicz’s findings:

  1. Islamic Radicals and Christian Cults: Cut from the Same Cloth
  2. How Minds Are Opened to Extremist Views

Recall that W’s case study is the now-banned British group, al-Muhajiroun. From Wikipedia:

Al-Muhajiroun (Arabic: المهاجرون‎; The Emigrants) is a banned Salafi jihadi terrorist organisation that was based in Britain and which has been linked to international terrorism, homophobia and antisemitism. The group operated in the United Kingdom from 14 January 1986 until the British Government announced an intended ban in August 2005. The group became notorious for its September 2002 conference, “The Magnificent 19”, praising the September 11, 2001 attacks. The group mutates periodically so as to evade the law; it then operates under aliases. It was proscribed under the UK Terrorism Act 2000 on 14 January 2010 together with four other organisations including Islam4UK, and again in 2014 as “Need4Khalifah”.

While reading Wiktorowicz’s study I was often struck by the similarities between such a political-religious extremist movement and what I know of cults in the “Christian world” — Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Branch Davidians, Wordwide Church of God, Moonies, and others. Of course there are many differences, too, but the patterns of what leads otherwise unsuspecting individuals to take an interest in “counter-cultural” groups and (seemingly bizarrely) leave the “normal” world to dedicate their lives to such “fanatics”.

In the previous post we saw what prompts persons to question their previously held beliefs and open themselves to radical alternatives, what factors lead some of those new inquirers take seriously and explore more deeply an extremist group and even to agree with its teachings.

We have also seen that people can take an interest in “fanatical” organisations, even sympathize with them and agree with their views, but never take the next step of actually joining them and living according to their dictates. That final step is taken by a still smaller subset. It means the person has decided to give up everything in “this life”, everything that most of us consider the fundamentals of a normal existence — possessions, family ties, perhaps even one’s own life.

“Religions may do more harm than good by telling people a life after death awaits them. In all probability, many terrorist attacks and other tragedies would not occur in the absence of that belief.”HumanismByJoe.

However, serious research into the beliefs and lives of terrorist supporters reveals that common religious belief in an afterlife is far from sufficient to lead one to terrorist sympathies. Indeed, devout religiosity among Muslims correlates with rejection of terrorism. It is for most part the non-religious who are attracted to extremist movements. Their brand of religion is part of their “culturing” within the terrorist-sympathetic group.

What trips a person over that final line and into the extremist commitment?

Notice that Wiktorowicz finds that accepting beliefs or teachings of itself does not prompt people to give up “normal life” and be prepared to sacrifice all. Recall, further, that in the previous post Wiktorowicz even finds that Muslims in Britain who view themselves as quite devout are the least likely to be attracted to terrorist groups.

That final trip-wire is what Wiktorowicz labels “culturing”.

Even if religious seekers are exposed to al-Muhajiroun and accept Omar Bakri’s right to sacred authority, this alone is not enough to overcome the free rider dilemma. Seekers could attend lessons and learn about Islam without committing themselves to risky activism. In this manner, they could free-ride and reap the benefits of an Islamic education without incurring the costs and risks of commitment.

To understand why some individuals eventually commit themselves to the costs and risks outlined in chapter 1, we must understand movement “culturing,” or what activists term tarbiya (culturing in proper religious beliefs and behaviors). Al-Muhajiroun tries to draw seekers into religious lessons, where they can be cultured in the movement ideology. The ideology, in turn, emphasizes that the only way to achieve salvation and enter Paradise on Judgment Day is to follow the movement’s prescribed strategy, which includes high-risk activism.

Wiktorowicz, Quintan; Wiktorowicz, Quintan (2005-07-21). Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (p. 167). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.

So what is this “culturing” process and how does it lead people to self-sacrificing activism? read more »


2016-01-17

How Minds Are Opened to Extremist Views

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by Neil Godfrey

radicalIslamRisingWhy do people join religious cults and extremist groups? What turns some people into “mindless fanatics”?

In the previous post we were introduced to Quintan Wiktorowicz’s Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (2005) that explores the reasons people in Britain joined the now banned extremist group, Al-Muhajiroun. As I read his work I was struck by the overlaps with the experiences of many who join religious cults, including my own experience with the Worldwide Church of God.

At the time of writing the above news came through of a swathe of terrorist attacks in Jakarta, Indonesia. Having visited Indonesia fairly regularly over the past seven years, including the city of Solo that is regularly associated with concentrations of jihadist extremists, I have no problem agreeing with those specialist commentators who point out that most Indonesians have no time for Islamist extremism and violence. (Keep in mind that though Indonesia contains the world’s largest Muslim population it is the world’s third largest democracy.) But that’s no defence against the tiny handful who are drawn to terrorist organisations. So why are a tiny few drawn to what most people deplore?

Here is the question Wiktorowicz asks:

So why participate in the [extremist] movement? On the surface, the choice seems irrational: the risks are high and the guarantee of spiritual salvation is intangible and nonverifiable (i.e., there is no way to know whether those who follow al-Muhajiroun’s interpretation and die actually make it to Paradise). And there are plenty of less risky alternatives that guarantee the same spiritual outcome. This includes a plethora of less risky Islamic fundamentalist groups that share many of al-Muhajiroun’s ideological precepts. Is participation in the movement, then, the choice of the irrational?

Wiktorowicz, Quintan; Wiktorowicz, Quintan (2005-07-21). Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (p. 206). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Wiktorowicz’s answers are covered in chapters under the headings of

  • Cognitive Openings and Religious Seeking
  • Credibility and Sacred Authority
  • Culturing and Commitment

Breaking those headings down a little . . . .

  • “Cognitive Openings and Religious Seeking” addresses a range of factors that act as wedges to open people’s minds to radical alternatives to their world views. Most people say “What? Get real!” Why do a few say “Mmm… Interesting…. Let me think a moment”?
    • Most of those who go this far come to their senses and quickly realize that the message they are confronting is bizarre or “wrong” after all. Only a few of the few take the next step and embark on a journey of “religious seeking” or other form of follow-up.
  • “Credibility and Sacred Authority” digs a little deeper and explores why some alternative world views are more enticing than others.
    • What extent of knowledge is demonstrated by the radically new source? How does the “character” of the new source stack up against alternatives? How does personality tilt the scales? What of the public persona of a key channeller of the new ideas?
  • “Culturing and Commitment” looks at why certain individuals go the final step and commit to dangerous or “fanatical” groups.

Of the few persons who take an interest in what most regard as “fanatical ideas” even fewer actually take the leap from intellectual agreement to jumping in knowing the sacrifice they are making and the world they are leaving behind. That final step is of particular interest but first things first. Why do a few of us become sincerely interested in the radical fringe ideas in the first place?

I won’t address all of those in this post. Let’s focus on some of the wedges that prise “cognitive openings” for now. read more »


2016-01-16

The Function of “Brother of the Lord” in Galatians 1:19

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by Tim Widowfield

James the Just

James the Just

It seems hardly a month passes without somebody on Vridar bringing up Galatians 1:19, in which Paul refers to James as the “brother of the Lord.” Recently I ran a search for the phrase here, and after reading each post, it struck me how much time we’ve spent wondering what it means and so little time asking why it’s there in the first place.

What is the function of “brother of the Lord” in that sentence? Notice we can ask this question without raising the hackles of either the mythicists or historicists. Forget what it might mean. Forget (at least for the moment) who you think wrote it. It could have been Paul. It might have been the very first reader who added it as a marginal note or a scribe at some point along the transmission path. Instead, let’s ask why.

It would appear on the surface, at least, that “brother of the Lord” is a kind of descriptor. In other words, it tells us which James Paul met. Since 1:19 is the first time Paul mentions James in Galatians, perhaps that’s why we see it here. But then why didn’t Paul do the same thing in 1 Corinthians, which he probably wrote in the same year?

1 Cor 15:7  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. (ESV)

One could argue that since he’d already referred to “the twelve” in 1 Cor 15:5, Paul didn’t need to explain which James he meant. In fact, he may have been reciting an early resurrection credo, and as such everyone would already have known who all the characters were — Cephas, the Twelve, the 500 brothers. They needed no introduction, so to speak.

Which James?

On the other hand, one could argue that in Galatians Paul could only have meant one James. He was, after all, starting an extended tirade against the Jerusalem pillars, and his Galatian audience would surely have known who he meant. He probably told that story all the time — “Then James sends a bunch of his thugs up to Antioch, and old Cephas is like, ‘I’m not eating with those Gentiles. No way!'” read more »


2016-01-13

Islamic Radicals and Christian Cults: Cut from the Same Cloth

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by Neil Godfrey

radicalIslamRising
Dr. Quintan Wiktorowicz works with CEOs and senior leaders to leverage high impact outreach and engagement, partnerships, and innovation to create opportunities and manage risk. He is an internationally recognized author and expert on national security engagement and counter-terrorism and served in two senior positions at the White House, where he led efforts to advance national security partnerships and innovation at home and abroad. Prior to joining the White House, Dr. Wiktorowicz developed ground breaking counter-radicalization initiatives for the Intelligence Community and the Department of State. Before his government service, he was a social movement theorist and one of America’s leading academics on the Muslim World.
Extract from The Huffington Post biography

Over my end of year break as I was catching up with Quintan Wiktorowicz’s Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West(2005) I was somewhat amazed at the extent to which my own personal experiences as a member of a Christian cult many years ago overlapped with what I was reading about the factors that lead people into extremist Islamic movements.

Wiktorowicz’s case study was the British based and now banned Al-Muhajiroun (= “The Emigrants”). My own experience was with the Worldwide Church of God and has since been further informed through a wide reading about other religious cults, the comparable experiences of others and some of the research into why people join them, why they remain and why they leave.

Similarity #1

On page 47 Wiktoriwicz has a section headed REQUIREMENTS FOR THE COMMITTED ACTIVIST. It begins (with my own bolding):

Al-Muhajiroun activists participate in a dizzying array of required weekly activities, and the tempo of activism is fast-paced, demanding, and relentless. Activists commit to an assortment of lessons, public outreach programs, protests, and countless movement-sponsored events, all of which consume tremendous amounts of time, energy, and resources. They center their lives around the movement and in the process frequently sacrifice work, friends, family, and leisure time. To put it simply, al-Muhajiroun participation is an intense experience.

Wiktorowicz, Quintan; Wiktorowicz, Quintan (2005-07-21). Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (p. 47). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Oh yes! That is very much a mirror of what one finds among religious cults. Mid-week evening Bible Study meetings (the family, children included, generally expected to attend); all day sabbath services and related activities; day of preparations work to be sure everything is in place for the sabbath “rest”; daily minimum of half hour prayer and half hour personal bible study — but with the constant message that the servant who does only the minimum expected is an “unprofitable servant” destined to be “cast out” in the final judgment; active participation in other social events and promoting of “the work” — e.g. letter box drops, maintaining stalls, local fund-raising; volunteering to work at youth camps; setting aside (in Australia) two tenths of one’s gross income for donations to “the work” and compulsory holy day festival attendance in addition to “voluntary offerings”, and twice in seven years setting aside a third tenth of one’s gross income ostensibly for “the poor”. Two magazines and a lengthy co-worker letter were produced monthly and were required reading. Other self-improvement activities were constantly promulgated: a regular speaking club for men; fitness and diet schedules; dress codes; correct habits of speech; the requirement to keep up to date with current news.

The Church or “Work” is one’s whole life. Birthdays, Christmas holidays, Easter, — these were all shunned as “pagan” so one necessarily withdrew from family and former friends. If sabbath and holy day festivals clashed with job requirements then so much the worse for the job.

The details of what keeps members busy and committed varies from cult to cult, but the effect is the same. Such a routine functions to immerse the member in the thought-world of the organisation. There is no time for serious, independent reflection.

Religious training lies at the core of activism: committed activists must master religious doctrine and movement ideology so that they can effectively promote al-Muhajiroun’s ideological vision of an Islamic state and society. To ensure that they are intellectually equipped with “proper” (i.e., movement) religious beliefs, formal members are required to attend a two-hour study session held by the local halaqah (circle) every week. Attendance is mandatory, unless the individual cannot make it because of travel constraints, a sick family member, or an emergency. In each country where al-Muhajiroun is active, the country leader may excuse absences for additional reasons deemed acceptable under Islamic law.

Wiktorowicz, Quintan; Wiktorowicz, Quintan (2005-07-21). Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (p. 47). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Reminds me of our mandatory two-hour weekly Bible Study sessions. Members who regularly absented themselves from weekly Sabbath services and also failed to have a good reason for skipping mid-weekly Bible Studies were noted (a few trusted members were assigned the surreptitious maintenance of attendance sheets) — and paid a visit by the ministry. read more »


2016-01-11

THE SECOND WAVE OF THE NEW ATHEISM: A Manifesto for Secular Scriptural Scholarship ​and Religious Studies

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by Neil Godfrey

The following is copied with permission from THE SECOND WAVE OF THE NEW ATHEISM

This Manifesto was initiated in the summer of 2015 by Hector Avalos and André Gagné.

Please contact the authors if you wish to add your signature.

Hector Avalos
Iowa State University
Ames, Iowa
HectorAvalos@aol.com

André Gagné
Concordia University
Montreal, Canada
Gagne.Andre@hotmail.com

BACKGROUND

The New Atheism is a name given to a movement represented by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, all of whom wrote best-selling books that were highly critical of religion.[1]

Although the New Atheism does not eschew the classical arguments against the existence of God, its focus is primarily on the immorality and harmful consequences of religious thinking itself. For some, the New Atheism is not merely atheistic, but also anti-theistic.[2]

Another main feature of the New Atheism is a secular apocalyptic outlook born out of the events of September 11, 2001. A secular apocalyptic outlook refers to the view that religion has the potential to destroy humanity and our entire biosphere.

However, many secular and religious critics of the New Atheism have charged the New Atheism with a number of flaws. One is a lack of expertise in scriptural and religious studies that has led Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens to make pronouncements that are rightly viewed as simplistic or inaccurate in some cases.

This situation has led to the perception that the New Atheism has no experts in scriptural and religious studies that could challenge religious counterparts with as much or more expertise. Others have conflated all New Atheists as followers of a neoliberal or capitalist ideology. Still others note that all the representatives of the New Atheism are white males.

Accordingly, there is a need to identify a Second Wave of the New Atheism. Such a need was discussed briefly in Hector Avalos, The Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament Ethics (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2015), but it received no elaboration.[3]

The First Wave focused on the problems that religious thinking can cause. Since religion was the focus of the First Wave, then a Second Wave seeks to rethink how self-identified atheist scholars of religion and scripture approach the issues that the First Wave raised.

The recent uprising of terror attacks across the globe from groups like ISIL, Boko Haram, Al-Shabab, and others, is also one of the reasons why scholars of religion and scriptural studies who identify with a Second Wave of New Atheists should speak out against the catastrophic effects of religious violence and ideology.

The authors of this statement, Hector Avalos and André Gagné, thought it useful to identify the main characteristics of what can be called a Second Wave of the New Atheism. Our hope is that other secular scholars who have similar ideas might join us or help us to clarify the nature and purpose of scriptural scholarship and the study of religion as it relates to current global events in the coming decades.

A MANIFESTO FOR SECULAR SCRIPTURAL SCHOLARSHIP AND RELIGIOUS STUDIES

Insofar as we believe that religious belief has the potential to incite actions that could ultimately lead to the destruction of our planet, we identify ourselves with what is called “the New Atheism.” We affirm that a Second Wave of the New Atheism exists insofar as that descriptor encompasses self-identified atheist scriptural scholars or scholars of religion who:

  • Are academically trained experts in the study of religion and sacred scriptures (e.g., the Bible, Quran, and any other text deemed sacred on religious grounds);
  • Regard activism as a fundamental orientation of all scholarship insofar they agree with Noam Chomsky’s view that “[i]t is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies”;[4]
  • Uphold and defend freedom of expression;
  • Question the notion that religious thinking is itself good or ethical;
  • Acknowledge that human ethics need not depend on religion;
  • Welcome as wide a diversity of scholars as possible in terms of ethnic self- identification, gender, or sexual orientation;
  • Recognize that most of biblical scholarship is still largely part of an ecclesial-academic complex that renders it very distinct from other areas of the humanities and social sciences, especially insofar as it seeks to protect and preserve religion as a valuable feature of human existence;
  • Aim to expose the bibliolatry that still lies at the core of biblical studies insofar as most biblical scholars believe the Bible should be a vital part of modern cultures or bears superior ethical values;
  • Advocate the discontinuation of the use of any sacred scripture as a moral authority in the modern world;
  • Acknowledge that the traditional scriptural canons are an artificial theological construct, and encourages scriptural scholarship to study all texts considered authoritative or sacred by ancient religions;
  • Call attention to the ethical advances or positive features of texts in the ancient Near East that have not received due attention;
  • Seek to make scriptural and religious studies relevant by encouraging scholars of sacred scriptures and religions to engage in public discussions and/or use cyber-media to educate the public about issues such as the role of religion in violence and the use of sacred scriptures to oppose gay rights, contraception, gender equality, and other social and human rights issues that should be adjudicated on non-religious grounds;
  • Encourage secular scholars of religion and sacred scriptures to help establish policies that are based on reason and democratic values instead of religion; they should be the guardians of a strict separation between religion and state;
  • View cooperation with scientists as a necessary strategy to challenge those who use sacred scriptures to deny the existence of evolution or anthropogenic climate change, among other general scientific conclusions;
  • Work to ensure that professional organizations of scriptural and religious studies, such as the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion, insist on methodological naturalism, and not theological methodologies, in their basic approach to all research presented at its meetings, as is the case with all other areas of the humanities and social sciences;
  • Affirm that religious obscurantism can only be countered through education;
  • Insist on critical education that focuses on a historical and social understanding and development of religion; that is, teaching and education that is fact-based instead of faith-based; people should know ABOUT religions and religious texts, not in the sense of maintaining the value of any religious tradition, but to develop critical thinking about religions;
  • Regard the study of the Bible, the Quran, and other sacred scriptures as important in understanding western history and       modern culture, but without seeking to retain their moral authority.

Scholars who share these views may not identify themselves as any sort of New Atheists or as part of any Second Wave of the New Atheism. Indeed, some of the following signatories do not necessarily apply those labels to themselves. When the co-authors say that “a Second Wave of the New Atheism exists…” they are affirming the existence of people who already think this way, but may not have identified as such explicitly up to now.

However, we invite all scholars who share these views to join us in expressing, or putting into practice, any or all of the ideas and goals that we have outlined here.

SIGNATORIES:

Marc-André Argentino, PhD student, Department of Religion, Concordia University (Montreal, Quebec, Canada)

Kenneth Atkinson, Professor of History. University of Northern Iowa Department of History, University of Northern, Iowa, (Cedar Falls, Iowa, USA)

Hector Avalos, Professor of Religious Studies, Iowa State University (Ames, Iowa, USA)

Carol Delaney, Associate Professor, Emerita, Cultural and Social Anthropology, Stanford University (Stanford, California, USA)

Matthew Ferguson, PhD student, Department of Classics, University of California at Irvine (USA)

André Gagné, Associate Professor, Departments of Religion and Theological Studies, Concordia University (Montreal, Quebec, Canada)

Karen Garst, PhD, University of Wisconsin, Wisconsin (USA)

Daniel Gullotta, Graduate student, Yale Divinity School (New Haven, CT, USA)

Jaco Gericke, Associate research professor in the subject group Theology and Philosophy, School of Basic Sciences, Faculty of Humanities, North-West University (Vaal Campus, South Africa)

James Linville, Faculty, Department of Religious Studies, University of Lethbridge (Lethbridge, Canada).

David Madison, PhD in Biblical Studies, Boston University (USA)

Ivan Miroshnikov, Graduate student, Department of Biblical Studies, University of Helsinki (Helsinki, Finland)

Emmanuel Pradeilhes, MA in Biblical Studies, Faculté de théologie et de sciences des religions, Université de Montréal (Montreal, Quebec, Canada)

Jennifer Tacci, Graduate student, Department of Theological Studies, Concordia University (Montreal, Quebec, Canada)

_______________________________
Notes

* This Manifesto was first published on The Bible and Interpretation website on January 7, 2016

[1] According to Victor Stenger (The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason [Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2009], p. ii), who describes himself as a New Atheist, the New Atheism was motivated primarily by 9/11 and began with “a series of six best-selling books that took a harder line against religion than had been the custom among secularists.” Harris (The End of Faith, p. 323) states that he “began writing this book on September 12, 2001,” which clearly shows the link between 9/11 and the rise of the New Atheism. On the New Atheism among ethnic minorities, see Hector Avalos, ‘The Hidden Enlightenment: Humanism among US Latinos’, Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism 20 (2012), pp. 3-14.

[2] When speaking of the atrocities in the Bible, Christopher Hitchens stated “…it helps make the case for ‘anti-theism.’ By this I mean the view that we ought to be glad that none of the religious myths has any truth to it, or in it” (god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything [New York: Hachette, 2007], p. 102).

[3] Jaco Gericke (“A Fourth Paradigm?: Some Thoughts on Atheism in Old Testament Scholarship,” Old Testament Essays 25/3 [2012]: 518-533) speaks of the emergence of a Fourth Paradigm in Old Testament scholarship that is essentially atheistic. This Manifesto extends to all scriptural and religious studies, not just the Old Testament.

[4] Noam Chomsky, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” in The Chomsky Reader, edited by James Peck (New York: Pantheon Books, 1987), p. 60.

 

 


2016-01-07

The Memory Mavens, Part 9: Social Memory Distortion (1)

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by Tim Widowfield

Jael and Sisera by Jan de Bray, 1659

Jael and Sisera by Jan de Bray, 1659

The Song of Deborah in the fifth chapter of Judges, according to most scholars, contains some of the oldest material in the Hebrew Bible. However, Serge Frolov in a journal article and an online post notes several clues that should make us suspect that it’s a later work retrojected into the past. For example, he writes:

Another clue is what the text says, intentionally or unintentionally, about the author’s world. The U.S. Constitution was clearly written for a country that practiced slavery. Deborah’s song just as clearly has a monarchic political state in mind. It addresses “kings” and “potentates”; describes those who answered her battle cry as “princes,” “holders of the marshal’s staff,” and “lawgivers”; and portrays Sisera’s mother as a royal figure, complete with “princesses” waiting on her. Archaeology tells us that ancient Israel first became a monarchy in the 10th or perhaps even the ninth century B.C.E. Before that, its population simply had no concept of such aristocratic titles as “prince” for Israelites. (Frolov, 2016)

Given the linguistic content of material, then, it would appear that someone perhaps even as late as the Babylonian Exile may have written the song in an archaic form of Hebrew as a deliberate affectation.

In any case, my interest at the moment is not so much the song itself, along with its lurid details and grotesque schadenfreude concerning Jael crushing Sisera’s skull (which is apparently an irresistible subject for artists), as its unexpected use in a particular event in British Colonial American history.

Just what are you guys doing over there?

Many of the Separatist Congregationalists who left England in the early 17th century tried making a go of it in Holland but eventually came to the conclusion that living among the Dutch presented the temptation of too much freedom. Nor were they happy with the prospect of their children assimilating culturally into a non-English society. The decision to leave Holland and sail to a new, wild continent had little to do with the religious freedom of the individual, but everything to do with the religious liberty and solidarity of the group. Within their new, ideal community, they would stay focused on what they believed to be important and would bind themselves together via a legal compact.

Ostensibly, though, this self-enforced deportation from Mother England would be temporary. Their example may, they reasoned, serve as an object lesson on how free and pious people should live together. Of course, the Separatists represented a small percentage of Puritan dissenters; most had decided to remain and resist. Michael Kammen, in his essay entitled “Some Patterns and Meanings of Memory Distortion in American History” says: read more »


2015-12-30

Death of D.M. Murdock / Acharya S

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by Neil Godfrey

With great sadness we note the untimely passing of D.M. Murdock (a.k.a. Acharya S). She died on Christmas day, having succumbed to breast cancer. Over the years we’ve had our differences with Murdock’s ideas (and her followers) here on Vridar, but we always respected her energy and tenacity.

In the United States, unfortunately, illnesses like cancer can leave the living with large medical and burial bills. If you would like to help Acharya’s survivors, you can donate to a GiveForward fund set up in her name.

Requiescat in pace.


Putting in a Good Word for God

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by Neil Godfrey

5021775761_20d13050d2_b

No railway lines in West Bank and Gaza so trucks replaced trolleys in the narratives.

Speaking of the Devil or his doppelgänger, God, in my slightly flippant recent “trolley dilemma” post, what should appear in the serious social science research literature but that very trolley problem applied to Palestinian Muslims and Allah.

God usually gets a bad rap among us atheists but fair’s fair so when the research tips in favour of the Ineffable One integrity demands we duly acknowledge it.

Our findings cast doubt on the notion that there is something special about religious faith, including Islamic belief, that invariably favors promotion of violent intergroup conflict.

PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) has published Thinking from God’s perspective decreases biased valuation of the life of a nonbeliever by researchers Jeremy Ginges, Hammad Sheikh, Scott Atran and Nichole Argo. (The supporting data is also published as a supplement.)

Here is the article’s own statement of its significance (as usual, all bolding and formatting in quotations are my own):

Significance

Religious belief is often seen as a key cause of human conflict because it is said to promote preferential treatment of adherents and to harden group boundaries. Here, we examined a critical aspect of this link in the context of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, a multigenerational violent conflict with significant religious aspects.

We find that although Muslim Palestinian participants valued Palestinian over Jewish Israeli lives when making difficult moral choices, they believed that Allah preferred them to make moral decisions that valued the lives of Palestinians and Jewish Israelis more equally.

Beliefs about God may promote more equal valuation of human life regardless of religious identity, encouraging application of universal moral rules to believers and nonbelievers alike.

Gulp! How can that be? Before I discuss details of the article, here’s the overview:

Abstract

Religious belief is often thought to motivate violence because it is said to promote norms that encourage tribalism and the devaluing of the lives of nonbelievers. If true, this should be visible in the multigenerational violent conflict between Palestinians and Israelis which is marked by a religious divide.

We conducted experiments with a representative sample of Muslim Palestinian youth (n = 555), examining whether thinking from the perspective of Allah (God), who is the ultimate arbitrator of religious belief, changes the relative value of Jewish Israelis’ lives (compared with Palestinian lives).

Participants were presented with variants of the classic “trolley dilemma,” in the form of stories where a man can be killed to save the lives of five children who were either Jewish Israeli or Palestinian. They responded from their own perspective and from the perspective of Allah.

We find that whereas a large proportion of participants were more likely to endorse saving Palestinian children than saving Jewish Israeli children, this proportion decreased when thinking from the perspective of Allah. This finding raises the possibility that beliefs about God can mitigate bias against other groups and reduce barriers to peace.

Ouch! Possible that religion can be a force for peace? Well, “religion” is a loaded term. That’s not quite what the study is addressing. So here are some details. . . .

read more »


2015-12-26

The Religious Thrill and Bond of the Islamic State

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by Neil Godfrey

There is a serious and intense poetry associated with the jihad. There are captivating a cappella chants, and the serious sharing of night time dreams that characterise the culture of the Islamic State. A deep part of the human experience common to premodern cultures but increasingly absent from ours (and whose power and meaning the neo atheists and neo clausewitzians just don’t get) . . . .

 

People have flocked to the Islamic State for different reasons and one of these is the religious experience it offers. That religious experience runs much deeper than its apocalyptic hopes for “the end times”.

Atheism, not anti-theism

I am an atheist and deplore the immeasurable damage “religion”, both organised and personal, has wreaked upon so many lives. At the same time I cannot deny that many people find deep spiritual meaning for their lives in religion. (I use the word “spiritual” for convenience and sometimes use “religious” as a synonym. Normally I’d prefer to speak of the rich emotional life many find through the awe of existence and experiencing the universe, and as well as through companionship and the arts, music, and so forth.) It is for this reason I cannot bring myself to be an anti-theist. If it is true that “it takes religion to make a good person evil” it is also true that “it takes religion to turn bad person good”. I personally wish people could find some other idea or experience to make them good or in which they can find personal fulfilment, but that’s how people are.

Why are people like this? To help us with answers we have our own experiences to draw upon and works like Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the spell : religion as a natural phenomenon (2006),  Scott Atran’s In gods we trust : the evolutionary landscape of religion (2002), Newberg, D’Aquili & Rause’s  Why God won’t go away : brain science and the biology of belief (2001) and especially Pascal Boyer’s  Religion explained : the evolutionary origins of religious thought (2001), along with dozens of others on fundamentalisms, new atheist critiques, and more.

Merely attacking religion’s unscientific and illogical beliefs and moral failings is entirely misdirected energy.

Merely attacking religion’s unscientific and illogical beliefs and moral failings is entirely misdirected energy. That approach only advertises the barrenness of the author’s understanding of the psychology of religious belief. Perhaps some New Atheists who are the most savage of critics of religion would modify their approach if they paused to investigate what some of the literature has to say about the origins of religion and why it is so deeply embedded in the human experience.

Thomas Hegghammer

Thomas Hegghammer

Thomas Hegghammer, a specialist in Islamist violence, wrote in an article in The New York Times (Dec 15, 2015)

When jihadis aren’t fighting — which is most of the time — they enjoy storytelling and watching films, cooking and swimming. The social atmosphere (at least for those who play by the rules) is egalitarian, affectionate and even playful. Jihadi life is emotionally intense, filled with the thrill of combat, the sorrow of loss, the joy of camaraderie and the elation of religious experience. I suspect this is a key source of its attraction. (Soft Power of Militant Jihad)

In seeking to understand the world of jihadis Hegghammer made it his business to understand everything they do, delving into “autobiographies, videos, blog posts, tweets and defector’s accounts”, and what he found he overviews in his NYT article which he titled The Soft Power of Militant Jihad.

Weeping, music, poetry

read more »


2015-12-25

Why Did Matthew’s Nativity Story Have References to Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh?

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by Tim Widowfield

Whenever I hear the word “myrrh,” I can’t help but remember a comedy bit by Cathy Ladman (note: you may not be able to view that video in your region). She tells us:

My best friend is Lutheran and she told me when Jesus was born, the Three Wise Men visited him and they brought as gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Myrrh? To a baby shower?

So in my head, “myrrh” is always pronounced with a New York/Brooklyn accent.

But seriously, why did those mysterious men from the East bring those three particular gifts to Bethlehem?

St. Albans Psalter, The Three Magi following t...

St. Albans Psalter, The Three Magi following the star (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Gifts fit for a king of kings

In general, modern scholars have explained Matthew’s choice of the three gifts as simply items fit for a VIP. We shouldn’t worry too much, they argue, over their specificity. For example, in his commentary on Matthew, John Nolland says:

No particular symbolism should be attributed to the individual items making up the present from the Magi: as expensive luxury items the gifts befit the dignity of the role for which this child is born. An allusion to Is. 60:6 is possible: Israel being glorified in the person of the messiah by the wealth of the nations. (Nolland, 2005, p. 117)

According to this view, Matthew intended no deeper meaning. And yet we still have that nagging suspicion that something more is going on here. After all, as Nolland himself notes more than a thousand pages later, Mark wrote that Jesus, while hanging on the cross, had refused wine mixed with myrrh. But Matthew changes the story so that the wine contains gall instead of myrrh, and rather than simply refusing it, Jesus tastes the mixture before turning it down. Did Matthew consciously move the myrrh from Jesus’ death scene to his nativity?

Myrrh oil for anointing

Margaret Barker, in Christmas, The Original Story, reminds us that myrrh was originally a vital component in the oil of the temple, however: read more »


2015-12-24

So God is Only Human?

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by Neil Godfrey

For God so loved the world that he did what many other people would have done — only to undo all his good with a much worse act later.

trolley-switchOne mind-game that keeps recurring in my recent and current readings in the nature and origins of our moral sense is the trolley experiment.

You see a trolley is running out of control along railway tracks and is about to kill five people hedged in by high banks on the track ahead. You have the option of pulling a lever to re-route the trolley to a side-track but there is another person similarly trapped there and who will die of you do.

Is it permissible to pull the lever so the trolley kills the one but saves the five? Most people say it is.

Then it occurred to me that isn’t this a bit like what the Christian gospel is about? God sees many people doomed to die, so he flicks a switch so that only one dies instead. (Okay, there are more theological trappings to this: those five have to repent or believe or they’ll find themselves in the same situation again and then God will decide not to pull the lever and they’ll all die anyway!)

So far, apart from the theological monstrosities, does not God’s great act of salvation appear to be little more than a perfectly natural human act in accordance with perfectly natural human ethics?

The mind-game gets more interesting if we introduce some variations. What about tossing a very heavy bulk of a man onto the track to stop the trolley if there is no lever to save the five; or what about pulling a lever that will drop the heavy bulk of a man on to the track so you don’t actually push him, and so forth.

Then there are other types of variation to introduce. One of these is having the solitary person on the side track being a close friend or relative of yours, perhaps your child? What if the five people are all staunch supporters of [fill in your most hated politician/party here]?

Then try the variants of scale. What if not just five people were doomed but an entire city by something accordingly matching the trolley?

If you saw the entire population on earth was doomed and the only way to save them was to allow your child to die, what would you do? It would be horribly painful but I suspect some, even many, people would even sacrifice their child.

Would God, then, have been any better than many mere mortals?

(Come to think of it, how many mere mortals, lacking awe and mystery, would then doom that entire population in a re-run if they failed to believe God had not lost his child after all but had magically brought him back to life?)